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Evacuation plans stymie A-plant builders. Should escape be considered before or after construction?

Six years ago, it seemed like such a simple step. With public concern about nuclear plant safety inflamed by the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission merely added a safety valve to the licensing process: All nuclear plants, the NRC ruled, must have evacuation plans drawn up and tested for a 10-mile radius before they can obtain a full-power license.

But the commission added a clincher: It called on state governors, rather than utilities, to submit and approve the emergency plans.

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Today, the consequences of that regulation seem anything but simple. With the specter of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl hanging over public thought, three state governors have used the measure as a last-minute loophole in the licensing process. And the nuclear industry is being thrown for a loop.

As overhead costs pile up and the $4 billion-plus plants lie virtually dormant, two questions bubble to the surface: First, why can't evacuation planning be addressed earlier in the process? And second, who should have the ultimate authority in deciding if evacuation plans are adequate, federal or state government?

Evacuation planning usually pops up as the final hurdle to licensing, after billions of dollars have been plunked into a plant.

In Ohio, Gov. Richard Celeste withdrew support for evacuation plans of two plants, just as one plant, the Perry Unit 1, was on the verge of being given a full-power license.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis recently refused to submit evacuation plans for the six towns within the 10-mile emergency planning zone of the Seabrook plant, which sits just across the border in New Hampshire. The much-delayed $4.8 billion plant is complete and has the vocal support of New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu. But Governor Dukakis maintains that no plan could protect people from a worst-case accident. And without his approval, Seabrook will be delayed indefinitely, at a price tag of $50 million a month.

Mr. Dukakis and Mr. Celeste are following the lead of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who has staunchly rejected the possibility of a safe evacuation plan ever since construction was completed at the Shoreham plant on Long Island two years ago.

Both industry backers and bashers agree that a lot of money and political firepower could be saved if emergency planning issues were addressed first, not last. Plant investors could save millions, even billions, of dollars by not building a plant in a physically -- and politically -- dangerous location. And citizens would not have an unwanted nuclear plant plopped down in their backyards.

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``Nothing is more fundamental than deciding on a site,'' says Robert Pollard, a nuclear-safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists. ``If the plant is in a bad location -- in terms of population, density, lack of roads, etc. -- that's something that should have been looked at years ago. But years ago, emergency plans were not in effect.''

Indeed, most of the nation's 102 operable reactors were already under construction or running when the NRC changed the evacuation planning rules in 1980. After the regulation became effective, however, states were slow to submit plans and the NRC was less than dogged in its enforcement, according to a staff aide on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on energy conservation and power.

Evacuation plans also drift to the end because they ``need constant revision to meet legal and political questions,'' says Bill H. McAda of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which tests and evaluates emergency evacuation plans for the NRC.

Nuclear power advocates and their adversaries both want to revise the procedure, but for different reasons. Activists want to open up the planning process before the plant is constructed, so that states and communities have more of a voice in the process. The industry, however, is trying to prod a bill through Congress that streamlines the plant-licensing process and shortens the time for citizens to voice objections.

Indeed, battle lines are being drawn over the states' rights issue. Two weeks ago, the National Governors' Association approved a motion calling for state participation in nuclear-plant safety. It was seen as an indirect jab at the NRC. In July, the commission decided to evaluate emergency plans submitted by the Long Island Lighting Company, which owns Shoreham, even though Governor Cuomo had not approved them. Observers suggest the same scenario will play out for Seabrook.

But the question remains: Can state officials stop a plant from operating on the grounds that they will never be prepared to handle an accident? Even if the NRC tries to license a plant without state approval of the evacuation plans, most experts agree that the ensuing debate would probably be destined for the Supreme Court.

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